The Desert’s Quiet, and Cleveland’s Cold

The wonderful Emmylou Harris does a great version of Pancho and Lefty, one of my all-time top ten.

Townes van Zandt wrote it.

Townes did a nice version, too:

Michael Blowhard had an excellent post about Townes a while ago. Worth reading.

I have been pondering the lyrics to this song for a long, long time. There is a lot going on. Townes was a genius. Note the verbs describing how Pancho died: he was “laid low”, he “met his match”, he “bit the dust”, he “fell”. Pancho lives in the land of myth, with Robin Hood and Odysseus. Was there a Pancho? Or did Lefty imagine him. If there was, the betrayal got him nothing, only more life in this life with all its squalor, while Pancho rides the range, young forever, sung by the poets.

Pancho and Lefty

Living on the road my friend
Was gonna keep you free and clean
Now you wear your skin like iron
Your breath’s as hard as kerosene
You weren’t your mama’s only boy
But her favorite one it seems
She began to cry when you said goodbye
And sank into your dreams

Pancho was a bandit boys
His horse was fast as polished steel
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho met his match you know
On the deserts down in Mexico
Nobody heard his dying words
That’s the way it goes

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him hang around
Out of kindness I suppose

Lefty he can’t sing the blues
All night long like he used to
The dust that Pancho bit down south
Ended up in Lefty’s mouth
The day they laid poor Pancho low
Lefty split for Ohio
Where he got the bread to go
There ain’t nobody knows

All the federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him slip away
Out of kindness I suppose

The poets tell how Pancho fell
Lefty’s livin’ in a cheap hotel
The desert’s quiet and Cleveland’s cold
So the story ends we’re told
Pancho needs your prayers it’s true,
But save a few for Lefty too
He just did what he had to do
Now he’s growing old

A few gray federales say
They could have had him any day
They only let him go so wrong
Out of kindness I suppose

4 thoughts on “The Desert’s Quiet, and Cleveland’s Cold”

  1. One of my favorite songs ever. Always makes me feel a bit lonely. An argument for having children and staying close to them (in my mind).

    The loneliness is not just Lefty’s though. The line, “Nobody heard his dying words,” have always haunted me. Truly that is the fear of any parent with a wild child, or maybe someone with an estranged sibling.

    Talk with your family and friends often folks, they’re the only thing that you’ll get for fried, but they’ll be the most priceless possession you’ll ever have.

  2. OT: but relating to Emmy Lou & the kind of edginess of Townes van Zandt. Our Netflix this week was a BBC documentary: Gram Parsons: Fallen Angel. It’s a powerful documentary. The director traces Parsons’ family history (pretty dysfunctional), then his life. The director says in an interview (included) that he didn’t want to romanticize drugs and alcohol but he also didn’t want to judge. He seemed to succeed at both. Most of all, it was clearly a work of love (he worked on the project for years) and he captured the incredible harmony when he sang with Emmy Lou. On the other hand, hanging out with Keith Richards and Phil Kaufman was probably not the most productive thing Parsons could have done.

  3. Anything about Gram Parsons is kinda sorta on topic.

    this excellent essay about Jonathan Richman tells the incredible and unlikely tale that he and Gram Parsons met in the early 70s, hit it off, and Gram was possibly going to play on Richman’s first album, the classic Modern Lovers (possibly my fave album of all time). “After expressing mutual admiration for one another’s work, they discussed the possibility of Gram playing on Jonathan’s upcoming record! The idea of what the first Modern Lovers album would sound like with John Felice playing on it is interesting; the idea of what it would have sounded like with Gram Parsons playing on it is beyond intriguing, a musical tease of parallel dimension proportion.” The mind reels at the prospect.

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